Arson and Street War, Life magazine, August 27, 1965
Courtesy California ephemera collection, UCLA Library Special Collections
Fifty years ago, from August 11 to 17, 1965, a community was shattered. A city was torn apart. Property was destroyed. Lives were lost.
The Watts Riots in Los Angeles—to some a riot, to others a rebellion—were set off by the arrest of a black drunk driver and the altercations that followed. While the McCone Commission’s investigation rooted the turmoil in inequality, poverty, and racial discrimination, a 1970 Institute of Government and Public Affairs survey of almost 600 Watts-area residents cited poor neighborhood conditions, mistreatment by whites, and economic conditions.The Watts section of South Los Angeles had been a predominantly working-class black community since the 1940s, when tens of thousands of African Americans migrated from the South for better opportunities in California. Within a couple of decades, the area was beset by overpopulation, poverty, segregation, and unemployment.
Nationally, the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act—outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin—and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 offered promise of a new direction in race relations.
But in California, as elsewhere in the country, progress was slow—a source of frustration and despair. In 1964, Californians voted to overturn the Rumford Fair Housing Act, enacted the year before to grant equal opportunity for black home buyers. In Watts, whose population by 1965 was 87 percent African American—the most segregated city in the West—tensions were already high.
Over six days of rioting, 34 people died, 1,000 were injured, and more than 4,000 were arrested. Businesses were looted and destroyed, incurring a loss of about $200 million. As 14,000 thousand National Guard troops, along with the California Highway Patrol and local law-enforcement officers, imposed a strict military curfew, the nonviolence of the Civil Rights Movement came to a close.
Aerial view of burning buildings, August 13, 1965; Library of Congress
(Left) Soldiers of California’s 40th Armored Division in Watts, 1965; courtesy National Guard Education Foundation; (right) Three National Guardsmen stand guard under a Los Angeles city limits sign in the southern end of the riot-torn section of the city, 1965; Library of Congress
Ceremony of Us: A Multiracial Response
For three years following the Watts Riots, similar violence erupted in other American cities: Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Newark. Watts, in contrast, sought and accelerated self-organized community projects to bring solutions to social problems. One, the Studio Watts School of the Arts, headed by James Woods, provided leadership training to youths through the arts.
In WATTS: Art and Social Change in Los Angeles, 1965–2002, Elliott Pinkney describes the studio’s intent— “The project provided for some 150 students training in visual arts, music, drama, dance, and writing”—and its manifesto: “We must facilitate the individual’s regaining an awareness of himself as an instrument of change. Studio Watts Workshop supports a cultural democracy to deal with the broad scope of social, technical, and economic problems.”
In San Francisco, another response to the political and social change of the sixties was occurring in the workshops led by the avant-garde dancer Anna Halprin, known today as a pioneer in the expressive arts healing movement. Seeking to explore issues of race, in the summer of 1968 Halprin received an invitation from Woods to work with African Americans in Watts and create an original work about the process.
Promotional image for , 1969; photo: Susan Landor Keegin
Instead, she offered to develop an all-black company at Studio Watts and an all-white one in San Francisco and to produce a multiracial performance based on the experience. She worked with each group separately and then brought them together for a ten-day rehearsal prior to the scheduled performance. Ceremony of Us premiered on February 27, 1969, at the Los Angeles Music Center following five months of discovering “who we are in relationship to blacks and whites,” as Anna later explained in her book Moving Toward Life: Five Decades of Transformational Dance (1995). “We started out being scared to death of each other. And curious. It’s hard to believe this but . . . this was the first time that this particular group from Watts had ever been in any kind of an intimate relationship with a group of white people. And vice versa."
Among the many exercises into personal exploration Halprin introduced to the Watts group was one she had implemented in Experiments in Environment, a multidisciplinary workshop series she co-developed with her husband, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin: a blindfolded walk through the environment. While the exercise into personal exploration failed with the Watts group, the studio performers continued on a personal “healing process.”
As Janice Ross has written in her biography Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance (2007), the Ceremony of Us workshop brought Halprin “a fresh understanding of how complex and layered the interweavings of each individual’s political, racial, and cultural history are in the performance work.” The next summer Halprin held multiracial workshops “in which she probed these issues and tested means for doing what she now felt was her raison d’être as an artist—‘trying to connect dance with people’s lives.’” With funding from the National Endowment of the Arts’ Expansion Arts Program, Halprin initiated Reach Out, a multiracial dance ensemble.
Describing her current work in community building, personal healing, and world peace in 2009, the now 95-year-old Halprin wrote in her foreword to Anna Halprin: Dance, Process, Form (2015), “Now more than ever in my lifetime, I see the need to redefine dance once more as a powerful force for transformation, healing, education, and making our lives whole, a dance that will speak to our needs today.”
Anna Halprin with dancers from the San Francisco Dancers’ Workshop and Studio Watts School for the Arts, during a rehearsal for , 1969. Courtesy of Anna Halprin.
Anna and Lawrence Halprin’s Experiments in Environment workshop series, mentioned above, is a focus of the California Historical Society’s current exhibition and events project Experiments in Environment .
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Further Reading: Choreographing the Environment: The Counterculture of Anna and Lawrence Halprin, by Shelly Kale, July 13, 2015.